This song, for example:

I've tried the notes in the intro on both standard tuning and half-step down, and they both match pretty closely. (How) Can one determine by listening the tuning used?

  • With a tuner. Personally, when I play by ear, my hearing is often a minor second off. So I always check with a tuner or the note sheets (when available). I think it's pretty normal. Few people have perfect ear.
    – Pyromonk
    Jan 24, 2021 at 1:14
  • I believe you're asking, essentially, "how do I know which guitar tuning to use for this song?" You say you've tried the notes in both tunings. Do you mean you've played the same sounding notes in both tunings? Or do you mean you tried pressing the same frets in both tunings? If the first, then that's expected. You can play in any tuning if you play the right notes in the end. If the second, your problem is the ability to hear pitch differences, which is a different question.
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 1:40
  • yes, I've tried pressing the same notes in both tunings so I can't really tell which one is correct
    – Ash
    Jan 24, 2021 at 2:30
  • Just to make it completely clear, when you tuned your guitar down a half step, did you also move all your fingers up one fret to play it? Or did you keep your fingers in the same place for both tunings?
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 2:45
  • 5
    If you kept your fingers in the same place, then you effectively played something different both times. If you can't tell which is in tune, you need to work on pitch recognition/ ear training. Check out these answers: music.stackexchange.com/questions/98/… music.stackexchange.com/questions/178/…
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 3:11

5 Answers 5


Can one determine by listening the tuning used?

It might be more or less difficult from case to case. Several ways to get hints:

  1. Search for live performances and look what the guitarist is playing.

  2. Identify the lowest pitch. If the lowest pitch is below E2, then certainly the tuning is not E-standard.

  3. Listen to the tone of each note.

    • Notes on the open strings sound differently from fretted notes.
    • Notes on thicker strings sound differently from notes on thinner strings (e.g. open A2 string sounds differently from A2 note played on detuned Ab2 string).
    • Other hints include fretting hand articulation sounds, like hammer-on, pull-off, slide, and others
  4. Try playing the tune along with the recording. If it's easy to play in Eb-standard, while in E-standard requires awkward, difficult or perhaps impossible fingering, that's a strong hint.

  5. Look for other information. Some guitarists are known for their preference for certain tunings. Perhaps they use the same tuning on the whole album.

  • 1
    OP "Kept fingers the same place" in two different tunings. I'm 60% sure that the OP's problem is just not being able to tell if the song is in E minor or Eb minor. Jan 24, 2021 at 17:48
  • 1
    @piiperiReinstateMonica so you think OP has tabs, but don't know how to read them? They would need to clarify it... I answered the general question the best I could. I must admit this is a tough example, since the opening riff can be well played in any tuning. In Eb-standard it could be played easier with open strings, but in my impression it is not. I haven't try to work on the rest of the song. Jan 24, 2021 at 19:55
  • I don't know. How do you keep fingers in the same place ... different tunings, but it sounds the same? What? I don't get it. It's possible that the OP cannot hear the pitches and Em and Ebm sound the same. Why do you need a different tuning for this song? With a half-step down tuning you could use open Dm shapes instead of barre chords, but would someone really tune their guitar for that? And still, how do you keep fingers in the same places, change the tuning, and get the same sound. What. Jan 24, 2021 at 20:26
  • Technically it says "they both match pretty closely", not that they sound the same. That could well be something like 1/4 tone sharp and 1/4 tone flat.
    – ojs
    Jan 24, 2021 at 21:04

I believe it is standard tuning but even if it is Eb tuning it’s irrelevant because there are no open strings being used. The first 3 chords are all being played around the 6th-9th frets until the Gb chord, where you can clearly hear a downward slide to the 2nd to 4th frets. You can even hear it in the timbre of the chords, they are darker sounding, typical of chords that are played higher up the neck.

This is what I hear in the first 4 bars in TAB standard tuning:

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In this case there are no obvious clues as to what tuning is used but in general some things to listen for are open CAGED chord shapes and the lowest note played, If it is below an open E that’s a dead giveaway.


The opening pitches of the song make up an Eb minor chord, suggesting either the playback is slow or the guitar is tuned a half-step low.


In light of Edward's comments below, a further thought on the tuning. One can hear fret noise, suggesting that the tuning used does not allow for entirely open strings -- limiting the advantage an Eb tuning. Instead, it could be a standard E tuning with a capo on the 2nd fret. This would accommodate both the lowest pitch used, Gb (in the fourth chord), while also simplifying the overall fingering.

  • It sounds to me (based on the fret noise and note release before the fourth chord) that all the chords are being played without open strings, with movable shapes. So while the guitarist may have chosen to tune to Eb for an Eb song, it wouldn't really make a difference here, and the guitar could very well be in E standard.
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 1:54
  • @Edward Wouldn't E standard put the very first note below the range of the lowest string? (Not a guitarist.)
    – Aaron
    Jan 24, 2021 at 2:03
  • 1
    It would put the first note a M7 above its lowest note. You can hear that the line starts on a higher Eb and goes down.
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 2:05
  • Makes sense. Given your comment about not using open strings (i.e., fret noise), and the four chords that comprise the song (Eb min - Bb - Cb - Gb), Bb being the lowest pitch, would it make sense to use a capo (possibly in conjunction with retuning) to give the simplest fingering options?
    – Aaron
    Jan 24, 2021 at 2:16
  • Actually Gb is the lowest pitch. So the capo would go on 2. Still, using a capo gives the simplest fingering.
    – Edward
    Jan 24, 2021 at 3:19

It sounds like you are trying to determine the Key that this arrangement of the song is being sung/played in. I do a lot of transposing music from arrangements like this and there are the steps I take:

  1. Find where the song resolves to the tonic (root) of the song. This usually happens at the end of a chorus. In this song, it's tricky, but it sounds like the the melody is resolving on on the words "eyes" and "i"

we’re just people made of broken pieces / i got secrets you got secrets in your eyes /
why does sad love always taste the sweetest / we got reasons we got reasons you and i /

  1. Using your instrument of choice or an audio tuner, find that pitch. (I sounds like G-flat to me)
  2. Determine if it is a major or minor key (this case it's major)

That is your key. From there you can determine the rest of the chords / notes in the song.

This sound sounds to me to be in G-flat major. If this is correct, you are looking for a tuning that can easily play G-flat, C-flat, and D-flat chords. Standard tuning capoed at the 6th fret would achieve this. Or Open-D tuning capoed at the 4th fret.


Bear in mind it's not always possible. Songs can be, and are, speeded up or slowed down, which may (or may not) change their pitch from original.

The obvious is that if there are notes lower than E♮, the song's not in E! If no chord is played as an open shape - everything is barred - then it's well nigh impossible to tell. Although guitarists do like to use open voicings on a lot of songs, and it will depend who that guitarist is. In fact, if open voicings are used, that's a good clue. An open E sounds different from an open A, open C, open G.

A telltale is sometimes the sloppy changes between chords - particularly just before chord changes occur. Some guitarists are in the habit of playing an open strum there - maybe can't reach the next shape in time - and that's going to sound like all the open strings. Isolate that, and there's your answer.

Having listened, it could even be that standard tuning was used, but the guitar had a capo on the 2nd fret - giving an open sound to the F♯ low note.

  • "if there are notes lower than E♮, the song's not in E" Did you mean "the song's not in E standard tuning"?
    – Edward
    Jan 25, 2021 at 4:02
  • @rcgldr - version I listened to was concert Eb, but there was a capo on 1st fret. Sjnce there was only the one guitar, it could have been tuned to anything - or nothing.
    – Tim
    Jan 25, 2021 at 8:02
  • @rcgldr - that comment was for you. It had no relevance to Edward's comment.
    – Tim
    Jan 25, 2021 at 10:07
  • @Edward - 'If the lowest note is lower than bottom E on a standard tuned guitar, then that guitar must be tuned down - or the recording pitch changed ' is what I meant.
    – Tim
    Jan 25, 2021 at 10:09
  • @Tim - my fault, wrong song. "You can close your eyes", standard tuning, capo on 1st fret. Video with Carly Simon. I'll delete this comment later.
    – rcgldr
    Jan 25, 2021 at 17:29

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